Graphic by Joaquin Kunkel

Is Creation Science a Valid Science?

Why creation science should be considered a philosophical position rather than a scientific claim.

Oct 30, 2016

My high school biology teacher, a Christian missionary in Nepal, was a creationist. When we began studying the topic of evolution in class, she said that she believed — or trusted — in the theory of microevolution, but she did not think macroevolution was possible. Small, subtle mutations in organisms were possible, she asserted — bacteria could easily develop antibiotic resistance. But for a prokaryote to turn into fish, to turn into frog, to turn into man over the span of billions of years was not possible. To explain that logical jump from microevolution to macroevolution, only creationism — the theory that a God ordained the design and creation of the world and life in it — could succeed.
I never thought that a biology teacher could trust the scientific method and at the same time be a creationist. Those things didn’t seem compatible, and for me to encounter such a horrific possibility at a time when my militant atheism was at its peak was the perfect combination of all the wrongs in the world. I never felt more strongly about a case of religion and science clashing.
This led me to the more interesting question of whether creation science is a valid science or not. Creation science or its more religion-neutral successor, intelligent design — for creation science reeks of Biblical creationism — revolves largely around the simple claim that the world was contrived by a designer.
It is the view of Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at NYU Thomas Nagel that the theory of intelligent design is always disregarded as a scientific claim simply because it relies on the antecedent belief of the existence of a supernatural being. Evolution, he asserts, was conceived as an alternative to intelligent design, and rightly serves that position since it posits a theory of random, purposeless mutations resulting in the development of life. Intelligent design continues to posit a theory of intentional and purposeful design, which is also why it continues to be disregarded as a scientific claim. The premise, Nagel writes, “is that the purposes and actions of God, if there is a god, are not themselves, and could not possibly be, the object of a scientific theory in the way that mechanism of heredity have become the object of scientific theory since Darwin.”
Nagel later argues in his article that the designer hypothesis’ antecedent belief — that God exists — is no less plausible than the counter-belief that God does not exist. As long as neither the belief nor the counter-belief is scientifically more plausible than the other, neither is more scientific. Hence the theory that a designer was involved in the creation of life is a scientific claim, which makes it susceptible to refutation, of course, but refutation of a scientific nature, by use of empirical evidence and the scientific method.
It is my view that intelligent design is more a philosophical position than it is a scientific claim. Consider the most important distinction between evolution and intelligent design: the former posits that life occurred due to a series of random mutations, while the latter’s view is that a designer ordained the creation of life. None will disagree, of course, that evolution involves a scientific claim, and that the scientific claim is based largely, and can possibly be refuted, on purely scientific grounds. By scientific grounds, I am referring to the scientific method, which makes use of empirical evidences to test hypotheses. Well-tested hypotheses become scientific facts and make their way into our textbooks. But that is, in essence, the nature of the theory of evolution: it involves empirical evidences that can and perhaps will be refuted someday by better empirical evidences that give rise to new, better, improved theories. It is my opinion that the central claim in intelligent design, on the other hand, is a priori. The existence of a supernatural deity relies on no other faculty of the human than belief. The claim that a God exists is not treated as a scientific claim subject to empiricism because it is widely and implicitly understood that the claim largely engages our faculty of belief. It is also important to note many new atheists have ascribed to using a purported scientific method to disprove the existence of a God.
I write that such a claim is reached a priori because that belief that the claim is based on — that God exists — exists in and of itself. Nagel writes later of a new position that has evolved, so to speak, from the marriage of evolution and intelligent design — a pseudo-answer to the question of “whether the mutations on which natural selection has operated are entirely due to chance.” A proponent of intelligent design would most probably answer to such a question that the mutations described in evolution were, in essence, mechanisms designed by God to regulate and facilitate the development of life. I can conceive of such a scenario in which, if it could be demonstrated that evolution occurred completely randomly, a proponent of intelligent design would argue that it happened so because God ordained so.
It is not in my jurisdiction to assess the validity of the antecedent belief of intelligent design. But the alleged claim that intelligent design is a scientific theory does not seem at all agreeable to me, because the antecedent belief in intelligent design can and possibly will continue to exist regardless of the absoluteness with which evolution is established as scientific fact. Evolution is possible only inductively from the empirical evidence that our scientists will discover in their lifetime. Intelligent design, on the other hand, seems deductively possible, for the antecedent, that God exists, will continue to be accessible to our faculty of belief as long as we continue to believe in such a possibility. That certainly seems to me a philosophical position rather than a scientific one, and it is my opinion that we treat it as a philosophical position.
Perhaps the easiest characterization of the two distinct claims of evolution and intelligent design is that they answer best to two different questions. The former answers the question of how we were formed and what mechanisms seem most apparent in the development of our bodies as we know them today. The latter answers, as it has done traditionally, a much more teleological question — of why we were formed. Such a position, I believe, is agreeable to us all, religious or not. For my biology teacher, it is possible that such a position will convince her to come into class and tell us that she does indeed believe in both macroevolution and microevolution but that, at the end of it all, she believes God wanted us to evolve in such a manner.
Chiran Pandey is Deputy Opinion Editor. Email him at feedback@thegazelle.org.
gazelle logo